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Npr Humor Research Paper

Shankar Vedantam asks Bill Burr why what makes us cringe, also makes us laugh. Burr says, "If people see a trainwreck possibly coming, they're going to listen." Charles Sykes/Charles Sykes/Invision/AP hide caption

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Charles Sykes/Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Shankar Vedantam asks Bill Burr why what makes us cringe, also makes us laugh. Burr says, "If people see a trainwreck possibly coming, they're going to listen."

Charles Sykes/Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

What you think is funny and what you think is downright offensive says a lot about you.

In this episode of Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explores why some of us think, say, jokes about nut allergies are hilarious, while others are already crafting angry emails to NPR.

Gender, race, cancer, your mom—these are touchy subjects, but also ones that garner big laughs. Why? Comedian Margaret Cho explains it this way: "You're laughing because someone is actually playing with fire, and this may erupt into something incredibly explosive."

Shankar talks with evolutionary anthropologist Robert Lynch at the University of Missouri to ask when people laugh at jokes. Lynch presented volunteers with jokes about men, women and the wage gap. He measured who laughed. (Hint: being a man was not a prerequisite.) Lynch found in his research that the volunteers' propensity to laugh about the gender wage gap was shaped by their unconscious biases.

Lynch gave people an implicit association test, which gauges how strongly different concepts are linked in the brain. Then he had them watch a half-hour stand-up skit of notoriously funny-offensive line-crosser Bill Burr. Lynch didn't just ask who thought Burr's jokes were funny — he videotaped the volunteers and analyzed their facial expressions.

He found that participants with more traditional gender attitudes laughed more readily at the joke about the wage gap.

Lynch offered a reason why people laugh at jokes that mirror their internal views: Evolution. He says laughter signals to others what's going on in our heads. When two people laugh at the same joke, they subtly communicate to one another that they think the same way.

"A lot of laughter is about taboo topics . . . so it's communicating something that we may not be so readily willing to admit, but we're communicating it to other people to find out if they share our preferences," Lynch says. "It's kind of a coded message, saying, 'hey, are you part of my group?'"

Later in the episode, Shankar sits down with NPR arts reporter Elizabeth Blair to watch a bit from Louis C.K, who lives on the line between funny and offensive.

They discussed a range of social science research into what makes jokes funny. One idea: Jokes offer a mechanism for catharsis.

"When I walk out of a great show, it forces me to be a bit more authentic with my feelings," Blair says. "We all have some really dark thoughts. That's human."

Finally, Shankar and Elizabeth call up Burr to ask why he takes his audience to uncomfortable places — such as a recent joke about Caitlyn Jenner. They also discuss research by Peter McGraw about benign violations — the idea that jokes need to violate taboos to be funny, but they also need to be safe. For example, if your kid has ever experienced anaphylactic shock, you're probably not laughing at jokes about peanut allergies.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Max Nesterak is our News Assistant. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk,@maggiepenman and @maxnesterak, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Along with decent finances, it takes a lot of talent and practice to play in an orchestra. The same goes for being able to make people laugh. And even some of the most brilliant comedians can have a hard time of it. Let's listen to the usually great Johnny Carson in one of his not-so-great moments on the "Tonight Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Carson's sidekick, Ed McMahon, had to laugh at that, but nobody else was required. Not knowing how a joke will go over is part of the exhilaration of being a comic. But imagine if comedians could get it right every time. Some Web-based startups are trying to figure out the algorithm for funny. Alex Schmidt reports.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, is not fooling around.

PETER MCGRAW: This is not a place that has shelves and shelves of rubber chickens and whoopee cushions.

SCHMIDT: Actually, the lab is one of the first mainstream psychological attempts to study people's reactions to humor and how they can be used in the real world - in public service announcements, for example. McGraw says humor is notoriously tough to study.

MCGRAW: It's pretty easy to make people sad. But when it comes to humor, what one person finds funny, another person is offended, and yet another person is bored by it. And so to conduct this research really broadly ends up being difficult.

SCHMIDT: McGraw thinks figuring out the key to laughter could be used in the business world. He's advising a new startup called Laffster.

DANIEL ALTMANN: Log onto the app. It's showing you how to vote here.

SCHMIDT: I'm going to click through the directions. I'm testing the most recent Laffster mobile app with CEO Daniel Altmann. Kind of like Pandora recommends music or Netflix recommends movies, Laffster recommends comedy. The first video I click in the app is Joe Biden's appearance on the TV show "Parks and Rec."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

SCHMIDT: I thought the clip was pretty funny, so I gave it a thumbs-up. Videos are defined by attributes, like sarcastic, demeaning, subtle or dirty. By noticing what I like, Laffster tries to recommend more movies, keep me laughing and keep me watching. Daniel Altmann wants to license out the technology, too.

ALTMANN: Can someone else plug in the Laffster technology and drive three times the amount of videos, three times the amount of ads watched and ultimately drive revenue? Because they're coming there, and they're interacting. They're engaging.

SCHMIDT: Other startups are trying to harness humor differently. Julia Kamin is founder of dating website Make Each Other Laugh, currently in beta. If two people on her site laugh at the same stuff, her software will send them on a date. There will be no joke categories or analysis at all. In fact, she doesn't want to understand the magic of why two people click through humor.

JULIA KAMIN: One of the things that gives us excitement in life is that there are things that are always going to be elusive, no matter how much we're able to crunch data.

SCHMIDT: Kamin quoted author E.B. White, who famously said that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog: The frog dies, and who cares about its insides? Humor researcher Peter McGraw draws a different conclusion.

MCGRAW: I like to say that if frogs are like jokes, there's a lot of sick frogs out there.

SCHMIDT: And, McGraw says, if by dissecting frogs we can improve humor, then by all means, pass the scalpel. For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.

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